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August 21, 2012

TLC's gamble: Sticking to reality

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Broadcast networks have long aired original scripted series, while cable channels were subsisting off reruns, documentaries and old movies. Many cable execs found the cost of producing scripted shows prohibitive, yet a few gave it a shot, with mixed results.

The popularity of cheaply produced reality shows gave cable channels little reason to diversify their lineup. But the enduring success of scripted shows such as "Mad Men" on AMC is encouraging more networks to venture into the format.

Wading into scripted programming might be the next logical step in TLC's evolution.

TLC launched in 1980 as The Learning Channel. One of its early successes was the 1997 docu-reality series "Trauma: Life in the E.R.," which followed doctors and nurses in emergency rooms across the country. In its seven seasons, it was nominated for four Emmys.

"It became a catalyst for a fair amount of demographic change," said John Ford, TLC's first head of programming. "It skewed female, which really caught us by surprise. We weren't as sophisticated in understanding the gender dynamics back then but learned a lot about our audiences."

What TLC execs learned was how to capitalize on viewers' fascination with following people as they got married, had a baby, endured a makeover — lived life. This spawned "A Wedding Story," "A Baby Story," "What Not to Wear" and others.

These reality shows ran throughout the day, building TLC's brand as the channel for "life unscripted" — the network's slogan in the early 2000s.

When Discovery purchased TLC in 1991, the network was airing a mix of self-help shows, reaching roughly 15 million households and producing $13 million in revenue.

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By 2001, Discovery had turned the network into a $367 million operation that reached nearly 80 million homes, according to media research company SNL Kagan.

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